Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Nigerian Independence Day, Onitsha 1960

[Note:  Click on any image you may want to enlarge.]

Helen and I have just arrived in Nigeria  in late September of 1960.  We stay in Lagos very briefly where we get our necessary papers, buy a small car (we look at a used VW bug but buy a new Fiat 600 instead), then spend a few days in the “Ford Flats” at the University of Ibadan where we meet various fellow academic visitors, finally driving our new vehicle from Ibadan  in Western Nigeria to Onitsha in the East.  After a brief search for housing, we move into our upstairs rental flat on the southern edge of Onitsha Inland Town (enu-onicha).  When October First 1960 arrives, still settling in, we have this delightful moment below, seeing schoolchildren from Metropolitan Grammar School passing down Ugwuna0bamkpa Road on their way to join the Independence Day celebrations.  They see us standing  out on our balcony, and stop for a while, chanting at us in celebration (presuming, I suppose, that we are British citizens whose 60-year reign over the town is now ending, so their chanting may  be somewhat jeering in tone).  We cheer too,  and wave back at them, regarding ourselves as part of the New Order, not of the old.

Students on Ugwunaobamkpa Road, October 1, 1960

We then drive to Onitsha Sports Stadium where the Independence Celebration is to be held.1  We also know almost nobody in town at this point, so we blunder into the stadium after some of the dancing groups have already arrived.  The first images in the sequence order I record are these of an Oraifite Town women’s dancing group (sponsored by the Onitsha Branch of Oraifite Improvement Union):


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Another group I photograph is this collective of young men dancers, representing the Onitsha branch of another Ndi-Igbo town’s  Improvement Union.

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Having grown up mostly in the small-town American west, I had personally known very few black people (courteously but at a distance), but after this close-up experience in the Onitsha Sports Stadium, any unconscious stereotypes I might have carried from childhood regarding the appearance of people of African descent are utterly demolished on this day.  Standing in this massive crowd of thousands is a massive revelation for me, one I have carried with me all of my subsequent life.  (I remember thinking, “Every one of them is absolutely unique!” — any “black” stereotypic-image I might have had vanished forever.)

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The main portion of the celebration that we witness is however relatively brief.  The Obi of Onitsha arrives in a limousine, stands on a high platform, and speaks briefly to the crowd over loudspeakers.  Then other officials join him and also give very brief remarks.  Knowing little of the Igbo language, we understand nothing being said.




I ventur out onto the field at one point, following the lead of some other photographers.  Along the east flank of the stadium a long shading arbor has been set up which accommodates various parties allocated elite social standing.  I do not venture to walk along the line on this day.  (The white-robed figures standing at far right are leaders of a local church.)




Then commences the parading of a large array of local schoolgirls, all in uniform, marching past the reviewing stand.


Ranks of Onitsha schoolboys follow, striding in a much more formal, militant way.


A group of women dance.  I fail to identify them, and this photo is probably out of sequence. (Several of the set may be).  Things happen so fast the first few days we are in Onitsha that many events are poorly registered.


A contingent of local Muslim representatives appear at one point. (They typically join local celebrations as a compact, unified group.)


I manage to capture a glimpse of a particularly striking woman along with two red-capped chiefs, as the crowd begins to disperse at the end of the ritual process.


For a detailed visual tour of Onitsha as it appeares  to us  during our stay there from 1960 to 1962, go to Chapter Two of this volume, “The ‘New Nigeria’ 1960-62” and travel about the city.   Most of the images you will see are considerably better in quality than these sorry efforts just presented above, and more are available in all of the pages and chapters  of A Mighty Tree website than most readers will ever have the patience to consult.

At Home After the Celebrations October First, 1960

Here I have decided to indulge myself and tell about our late evening after these pictures were taken.  First I must say something about the upstairs flat we rent at 24 Mba Road.  This building is owned by Albert (Ozomma) Erokwu, where he lives downstairs with his wife Merci and their three children.  We have been in the  upstairs flat only two or three days, but by now  we know that the “running water”  provided in it actually runs only very occasionally (and it seems, unpredictably.  Apparently a tree has fallen over the water pipe somewhere in the Inland Town, partially but not entirely disabling it, so that water only runs from time to time depending on amounts  being used elsewhere.  We have already learned to leave the bathtub turned on with the drain-plug in place so we will catch water whenever it decided to run.

Where we go after the public celebrations I have completely forgotten, but when we returned to our flat the evening after the Celebration photographed above, we climb up our stairway to hear a roar emerging from our rooms.  We don’t ask what that sound is, since at our front door we can see inside substantial water filling the entire floor, every room now several inches deep and filling!  Horrified, we seize a broom and begin trying to remove the water through the front and back doors.  Our shouts arouse the three Erokwu children downstairs, who come up and immediately began helping us deal with the problem.  One of them thinkst to grab empty drawers from a chest and use these to scoop up water.  Together we eventually get the job done (and the floors nicely cleaned, by the way) and I creep downstairs to survey the anticipated damage in the flat below.  The Erokwu children’s grandmother is present, and to our great relief she appears entirely unaware there has been any problem.  I see a couple of tiny dampt spots in the corner ceiling of the downstairs living room, but that is all.  This, I realize, is one well-constructed cement-block house (see a view of it here below).  All while we were scooping out the water I was anticipating imminent floor collapse.  Now at least we know are  occupying a sturdy house.  (We also recognize our folly in leaving the faucet open:  most other residents of the Inland Town no doubt attended the many festivities occurring in the Waterside, so water use in the Inland Town had plummeted, and hence our bathtub received a continual supply in full force.)


We trhow most of the water out the front door, located behind and slightly left of where Helen is standing in the photo.

A day or so thereafter, a relative of Ozomma Erokwu escorts us to the office of the Onitsha Water Works, still occupied by an Expatriate official who, perhaps taking note of the obviously distressed “European”-looking couple standing before him, sees to it that the offending tree trunk is promptly removed, and we never have water problems in the building afterward.

This building survived the Biafra Civil War of 1967-70, though the hipped roof was blown off during that time (replaced by a slanting one, as we saw during our subsequent visit to Onitsha in 1992).






  1. I should say here near the outset that I had great difficulty learning to use my camera in the  African tropical sun, and indeed never really mastered my photographic tasks.  We would mail exposed film to England for processing, so had to wait weeks to see the results of our work.  All of the photos I took at the stadium were grossly over-exposed — as you may notice, and  so I have had to Photoshop all of them drastically in order to provide the rather poor images you will see here everywhere in this volume. []
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